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STS Speaker. Community as Ecofact or Artifact: Myths Of Meritocracy and ‘Fun Work’ in North-South American Field Science Collaborations

Mary Leighton, U-M Anthropology
Monday, November 5, 2018
4:00-5:30 PM
1014 Tisch Hall Tisch Hall Map
Individual researchers in field and lab sciences make connections to other people and resources as a necessary requirement for gaining entry to their discipline and having their knowledge-claims validated. A geneticist or a high-energy physicist cannot work on their own with their own lab or collider; archaeology, a field-science, is similarly collaborative. Archaeological networks are overwhelmingly based on friendship, which I argue is not unrelated to the discipline’s romantic reputation. Archaeologists are seen as scruffy, hard-drinking, fun-loving, and informal; they also consider their scientific community to be open, meritocratic, and straight-talking. Other STS researchers have made the case that networks and relationships are fundamental to making knowledge; in this paper I examine what goes into making such networks appear to be inherent and natural, based on universal values of individual merit and fellowship, and therefore closed to critique or change. I argue that those unable to perform informality correctly (by virtue of being foreigners, female, working-class, etc.) are less able to speak with authority and have their expertise recognized, because friendship and meritocracy are projected as inherent and universal values of good scientific practice, shaping who is considered to ‘belong’ to a scientific community.

This paper draws from a larger ethnographic project that explores why collaborations between scientists from the Global North and Global South break down, in which I argue that scientists in the same discipline but different parts of the world have different national epistemic cultures that, more than differences in language or economic resources, lead to practical misunderstandings and epistemic inequalities. In this paper I discuss collaborations between Chilean, Bolivian, Canadian, and US-based archaeologists working in the Tarapacá desert and Bolivian Andes. Drawing on examples of partying, teaching, and socializing during excavations, conferences, and university classes, I show how myths of ‘fun work’ in archaeology serve to exclude particular groups of people. Borrowing the concept of an ‘ecofact’ or ‘artifact’ from archaeology, I explore how friendship is held to be the natural outcome of affinity, shared values, and equality: thus scientific networks based on friendship are unproblematically meritocratic. And yet, concepts of meritocracy and friendship based in individual autonomy are products of a scientific and university culture that is specific to the US.
Building: Tisch Hall
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: Anthropology, Politics, Research, Science
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Science, Technology & Society